Vermont head coach John Becker felt like he was on the verge of losing his team after they surrendered 100 points to UMass Lowell on Feb. 8.
They had let up 107 to Purdue in their second game of the season, but this effort was different. Sitting at 6-5 in America East play and 14-12 overall, it hardly looked like the Catamounts would continue their streak of 20 straight victories. But Becker did something he had never done in his five season tenure as head coach: call out his team’s effort publicly.
“I think we had lost our identity a little bit,” Becker said. “I think guys have done a good job of just accepting their roles and becoming a team, guys are close it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t where it needed to be as far as cohesion and guys really doing whatever it took for the good of the team.”
“That has all changed and guys have really bought in and are doing a really good job of being a cohesive unit on both ends of the court.”
Flash forward four weeks later and the Catamounts have won six in a row, their longest win streak since 2014. All but one of their victories have come by double digits, that only one being a 73-67 win over New Hampshire on Feb. 24. In the time, they beat the Wildcats and the top seeded Seawolves in the regular season’s final game.
In that time, sophomore Cam Ward has averaged 14.5 ppg, junior Kurt Steidl 12.6 ppg and Ernie Duncan 13.5 ppg. Ward has embraced his role off the bench, while Steidl and Duncan have become go to starters in the young lineup along with Trae Bell-Haynes.
“We had five starters essentially, but only three of them could start,” Becker said of the group. “I think that was always an underlying thing on our team, that all of them want to start and that I understand they all want to start, but I just felt like there was, I think competition between players is good. I thought it might have been an unhealthy competition between the guys and everyone wanting to start and everyone being critical of each other without saying it, in an effort, I just thought there was there’s too much being put into that.”
The five are practically even in minutes as the Catamounts close down the stretch, but there is one hurdle this group has yet to clear. In the last three seasons, Vermont has failed to advance past the semifinal round to the America East championship. Three years ago it was falling to host Albany, who beat the top seeded Catamounts at SEFCU Arena under the old format. Last season, third seeded Stony Brook dealt Vermont a loss on their home floor in the semifinals.
In each of those meetings, the Catamounts had swept their opponent in the regular season, but could not clear the hurdle of a third win over them. Becker knows this, but hopes that this team – now having won six straight – will change that tide.
“I want to make sure that we do a better job of playing this game and not being overconfident,” Becker said. “I’m just trying to walk that line. I don’t want us to lose confidence, we have a lot of confidence, guys are doing a good job and playing well.”
“Every team’s different, this isn’t last year’s team, this isn’t the year before’s team, this is a new team and a different team. We’ve shown a lot of resiliency and we’ve shown some toughness and a lot of really good things, but it’s important we understand the history and a lot of these guys did play in last year’s game against Stony Brook. I don’t think it hurts reminding them and anything to keep their attention, keep their focus razor sharp and trying to do it with that.”
They’ve cleared the hurdle of reaching 20 wins, making Becker the first head coach in school history to win 20 each of his first five years on the job. They have one America East championship to show for it. Monday night’s performance could get them closer to two as long as they contain New Hampshire sophomore Tanner Leissner, who has been held to 10.5 ppg in their two games. They also have veterans, an experienced coach and have grabbed 28 offensive rebounds in their two meetings, something Becker would like to limit on Monday night.
“We’ve had some success against them, but they’re a tough physical team,” Becker said. “We’ll have to continue to pay attention to details and really focus on rebounding.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2015-16 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.